The Most Unusual Wine?


I've been fortunate to taste quite a lot of wine. I don't know how many thousands, but it's definitely in the thousands. This spring I was privileged to taste something pretty unusual. It was the 2013 Ao Yun, from Shangri-La, China. I am probably not the only one who had not tasted wine from China. But wine from China is not, in and of itself, all that unusual. There's quite a lot of it. Most stays in China, but some trickles out. I have yet to hear anyone make much of a fuss over it.

That may be changing. There is a new wine from China. One with grand ambitions (as you may be able to tell by the company it keeps on the menu). It's produced by the luxury powerhouse LVMH--which, incidentally, produces the other wines that were served that night. LVMH is not the only high-end producer looking for gold in China--for example, Lafite is there--but they're first to market.

This April, Jean-Guillaume Prats came to Washington DC to introduce Ao Yun in its debut outside China. That took place at Marcel's elegant restaurant, where about two dozen serious winos were invited to the unveiling by the Sands family, owners of Calvert-Woodley wine shop. Prats was known to many in the room from his years as CEO of Bordeaux' second-growth Chateau Cos d'Estournel (which his family owned for ~a century and sold in 1998). He left Cos three years ago to take on the Estates & Wines portfolio at LVMH.

LVMH doesn't do things half way. They committed significant resources to the effort--choosing a steep, high altitude site above the Mekong River, near the Tibetan border in Yunnan Province. LVMH has a long-term lease on the vineyards, which are worked by local villagers (all by hand) under the supervision of LVMH viticulturists. Because of the high altitude (average of ~8000 feet) the vineyards are dry and cool, with a long growing season. The initial vines were planted in 2002. The 2013 vintage is the first LVMH deems ready for the market. It's 90% cabernet sauvignon and 10% cabernet franc.

And it makes sense that LVMH would wait until they had some confidence in the product. Whatever they sell--whether it's Krug, Dom Perignon or a Louis Vuitton bag--is priced at the top of the market. They don't offer--I suspect they have no particular interest in--bargains. In fact, some luxury goods marketers, and LVMH is definitely among the best of luxury goods marketers, want to price their offerings high. They don't want any illusions about what they are selling.

Ao Yun will be priced high. It'll only be offered in a couple of US markets--notionally, Washington, San Francisco and LA. For those who are interested, watch Calvert-Woodley circa September when the fall shipments come in. With tax, a bottle will run you about $300. Is it that good? Well...no. Not in my opinion. But the price is not a travesty. This is good wine. Solid fruit and depth, with harmony (once we got a good glass--out first bottle was flawed). Those who like being able to serve something truly unique should probably consider it. After all, you don't get offered a wine from Shangri-La very often! For those English majors who would point out that Shangri-La was a fictional place...this Shangri-La was named after that fictional place. It's interesting that they are reserving ~500 cases of their very limited production for the US market. Reportedly, they could sell all the wine that they made in China. But if you think about sustainable long-term marketing, it makes sense. The fact that it's among the more expensive wines in the US market will likely only make it more attractive in China.

A unique experience. Yes, the other wines and all the food were good. But it was Ao Yun's night. I don't really expect to be part of another. But I'm glad I was part of this.


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